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Fresh and clean

Taqueria chain serves fresh Mex in sterile surroundings

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Johnny Carson once suggested that "baja" was the sound a sheep makes when it laughs. That's not one of the official definitions of the Spanish word, which is best known as the name of a mountainous Mexican peninsula just south of the California border.

The region (and its indigenous cuisine) lends its name to Baja Fresh Mexican Grill, a national chain of taquerias with two local franchises, one at the Mansell Crossing Shopping Center and a new one in Sandy Springs, just north of I-285. Step into one, though, and you'll see little visual evidence that the restaurant wants to evoke anything Mexican.

Occupying a corner of the Hammond Square strip mall, Baja Fresh has walls and fixtures that are almost entirely white with black trim, with a black-and-white tile checkerboard pattern on the floor. You order at a curved, white counter and can sit at the white tables while waiting for your food. Apart from the occasional red pepper logo, Baja Fresh is nearly free of color, giving an impression of sterile cleanliness.

The key word in the name, however, is not "Baja" but "Fresh." Although a chain, it has an aesthetic that runs counter to most conceptions about fast food, identified in the legend (printed both on the physical menus and below the menu board): "No microwaves, no can openers, no freezers, no lard, no MSG." Other signs warn patrons that the preparation may take longer than at comparable places.

With such an admirable goal, one wishes that Baja Fresh had better success, but the results aren't any better than you'd find in a family-owned hole-in-the-wall. The pico de gallo does feature flavorful tomatoes, and the guacamole has a nearly velvety texture, but it's rather dull on the palate.

The Tres Tacos combo ($5.75) offers a chance to try three of its "Baja Style" tacos (along with a sample of guacamole), although one may do better to focus on the fish taco, which is by far the best. The lightly breaded and fried white fish was moist, flaky and plentiful, with shredded cabbage for roughage and a tangy, pink dressing. The modest-sized meaty morsels in the beef taco, on the other hand, were nearly flavorless, overwhelmed by the chopped onion, cilantro and salsa (choice of mild or hot). Better was the tender, lightly spiced chopped bits of poultry in the chicken taco, which weren't overwhelmed by the toppings.

One cannot deny that the portions of the burrito "Dos Manos" ($7.35) are more than ample: Even half the burrito makes an adequate meal for a person, so it's a cost- effective way to serve two. Though it comes with a choice of chicken or steak and pinto or black beans, the dominant flavors come from the sour cream, grilled peppers and chilies, ultimately proving glutinous and gloppy.

The nachos ($4.95) would fit in fine at any Super Bowl party, blending melted jack and cheddar cheese, plenty of pico de gallo and guacamole, choice of beans and the addition of steak or chicken for an extra $1.74. Side orders include cebollitas ($1.25), a handful of seasoned, fire-roasted green onions, make an unusual, kicky (if a bit limp) garnish. The menu also offers quesadillas, tostadas, salads and a torta (i.e. a sandwich).

Most strikingly, Baja Fresh's salsa bar features some of the thinnest salsas I've ever laid eyes and tastebuds on. Both the green salsa and Baja salsa (with the brownish color and smoky flavor suggesting chipotle) have the consistency of a vinaigrette salad dressing. They tasted fine but rather monochromatic, where a richer, chunkier salsa offers more complexity and clings better to chips during dipping.

Baja Fresh's chips themselves are quite nice, and seem to be sliced thinner and cooked with less salt and oil than in an average Tex-Mex place. Their chips, in fact, may be the best example of their fresh philosophy. You've got to start somewhere.

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